The Light Invisible
The current dominance of postmodern literary theory in the Academy may be illustrated by an experience of mine at the relatively conservative institution where I teach. Some years ago, I was examining the course materials of a new colleague who was undergoing a review, and I was shocked to find in the syllabus for her “History of Literary Criticism” course that she covered everything from Plato to Eliot in a few weeks, spending the rest of the term on criticism written in her own lifetime. When I told her this syllabus was not appropriate for a survey course, she admitted that her approach was skewed but said she simply did not find Aristotle’s Poetics interesting. Before long, a proposal was made (and approved by faculty governance committees) to change the course description so as to permit such a syllabus. This postmodern transformation of literary studies is old news now—so much so that it is possible, at the turn of the millennium, to publish retrospective collections of what might be called (oxymoronically) classic postmodern criticism. The “Longman Critical Readers Series” now numbers over thirty volumes containing the most highly regarded essays of the past few decades. The recent addition to this series of a volume on T. S. Eliot offers an opportunity to assess what has been done by several movements in literary criticism over the past quarter century in their encounter with a writer who was extremely well versed in modern philosophy but fundamentally committed to some ancient philosophical principles.
In reviewing these several varieties of contemporary theory at once, one is struck by their incompatibility with each other. Some writers claim Eliot as one of their own, a kind of proto-postmodernist, while others attack his retrograde attitudes. More important, the reader detects a deep rift between the materialistic assumptions of Marxist (and Freudian) criticism and the utter denial of material reality inherent in poststructuralist theory. The materialists start from Marx’s assumption that, “The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process,” or from Freud’s similar assumption that the same phantoms in the brain are sublimations of physical desires. The post-structuralists, on the other hand, assume that ideas have no necessary connection at all with anything in the material world, but are produced by the rubbing of completely arbitrary mental signs against each other. What unites these antithetical movements is a denial of anything transcendent—a denial, first and last, of God. In a world without any meaning given to it by a divine mind, one chooses between a reductive materialism and an irreducible idealism. These are the horns of the postmodern dilemma.
Harriet Davidson’s introduction to this collection is a frank and incisive assessment of the current state of affairs. She finds that, in spite of the outpouring of postmodern theoretical criticism, “Eliot remains a bit untouched by it all,” and is “ignored or dismissed in much theoretical criticism.” She describes Eliot’s writing as “complex, powerful and often beautiful” (the last a term eschewed by most recent theorists, for whom aesthetics is a dead branch of philosophy). Davidson points out that some of the recent criticism focused on race and class has been “debunking and reductive.” In short, rather than touting the achievements of contemporary theorists, she forthrightly acknowledges some problems in their engagement with Eliot. These problems are fully evident in the collection.
Richard Shusterman’s “The Concept of Tradition” benefits from the author’s training as a philosopher and adroitly places Eliot’s idea of tradition in the context of his early philosophical studies. There is much of substance in this piece and in the book from which it is excerpted. However, Shusterman stretches his point when he makes Eliot out to be an adherent of pragmatism, writing that, “Twentieth-century pragmatists who reject the realist idea of an unmediated, unprejudiced, timeless objectivity have sought to avoid the subjectivist alternative by adopting consensuality as either the proper model of objectivity or as an alternative standard of validity.” It is true that Josiah Royce, one of Eliot’s teachers at Harvard, adopted something like this view, and there are statements in Eliot’s dissertation that approximate it. But, for Eliot, the notion of cultural consensus developed into something more like the wisdom of the ages or even the theological doctrine of sacred tradition, a way of knowing objective truth rather than a way of getting by without that knowledge. Shusterman makes Eliot a social constructionist, one who denies all objective truth and insists that all our “truths” (henceforth always in quotation marks) are constructed by the society to which we belong. Eliot is thus aligned with Richard Rorty’s assertion that “our only usable notion of objectivity is agreement rather than mirroring.” Neither art nor philosophy can any longer be said to “hold the mirror up to nature”; they can only reflect a cultural consensus. With such a radical denial of objectivity Eliot was never in agreement. His central philosophical and poetic project was to discover the intersection of subjective and objective experience.
Jeffrey Perl, in “The Language of Theory and the Language of Poetry,” makes a similar attempt to identify Eliot as a precursor of Rorty and other social constructionists. To be sure, Perl can quote passages from Eliot’s doctoral thesis chiding epistemologists for assuming “that there is one consistent real world . . . and that it is our business to find it,” but this critique of a naïve objectivism does not lead Eliot to adopt a naïve subjectivism. In emphasizing the dissertation (which is, like many others of its genre, a somewhat labored work) Pert does not take account of Eliot’s extensive coursework in classical philosophy and his frequent avowals of allegiance to Aristotle, which preceded and far outlived his adherence to modern philosophies.
Michael Beehler offers to defend Eliot against the charge that he is an “essentialist” (one who believes that things and people have an objective essence). His title, “Semiotics/Psychoanalysis/Christianity: Eliot’s Logic of Alterity,” displays the postmodernist’s penchant for slash marks and jargon. In this barely readable essay, Beehler notes in Eliot’s writing a theme of otherness (as in the line “belonging to another, or to others, or to God” in Four Quartets) and connects that with an emphasis in postmodern psychoanalytic theory on encountering the other. The implication is that Eliot’s Christianity is not as stodgy and monolithic (or monologic) as everyone thought but is actually dialogic (a good thing ever since Bakhtin). Beehler deploys Kristeva’s statement about “relationship with another, from which meaning derives”: What a difference it makes, though, to think, as Eliot did, of relationship with that Other, from Whom meaning derives.
In a brilliantly written piece, full of rapidly glimpsed associations, Maud Ellmann calls The Waste Land “A Sphinx without a Secret,” by which she means that the depths of the poem are as vacant of significance as the surface: “there is no secret underneath its hugger-muggery.” Making it a deconstructionist poem, she argues that The Waste Land “stages the ritual of its own destruction.” This is more-than-half true, but the other “more-than-half’ is that the poem hints at a renewal that is expected to follow the destruction. The poem’s method is like the alchemical method: solve et coagula (dissolve and then coagulate). When the poem is reduced to the inarticulate sound of thunder, Da, it begins to make sense.
No, adopting Eliot into the postmodernist fold will not work. These theorists legitimately recognize something akin to their own thought in Eliot’s writing—a skeptical frame of mind, an awareness of the void, a consciousness of the limitations of language—but for Eliot that was never the whole story.
Turning to the materialist camp, we find a short excerpt from a book published a quarter of a century ago by Terry Eagleton, one of the leading Marxist critics then. Many of Eagleton’s comments stand the test of time, for he is a gifted writer and insightful critic. Yet his more blatantly ideological statements seem oddly dated, like the music and fashions of the 70s. He labels Eliot an “industrious servant of Lloyd’s bank, necessarily supporting the economic system which practically ensures . . . the conditions of elitist culture.” He characterizes The Waste Land as a blend of “progressive form” and “reactionary content,” exhibiting both “cosmic detachment” and “guilty collusion.” He sneers at Eliot’s “pathetically nostalgic fantasies of a hierarchical Christian order.” Reprinted twenty-five years later, it is Eagleton’s essay that will evoke a nostalgic longing in former academic “revolutionaries.” There is an almost touching naïveté in Eagleton’s attacks—an unconscious assurance similar to that of a political billboard I remember seeing in Spain in that era proclaiming that “Socialism is liberty.”
Yet Eagleton’s phrase “guilty collusion” seems to me to call for a more serious response, for while reading this volume I also happened to be reading Hilton Kramer’s Twilight of the Intellectuals, which recounts the collusion of many American intellectuals with Soviet communism, long after it had become clear that tens of millions of people had been brutally tortured and murdered by the Stalinists. Another book I finally got around to reading as I prepared to write this review was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. Chambers calls communism a “rational faith” and makes a simple and profound statement that is almost equally applicable to all the ideologies that dominate the Academy today:
It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
Today, it seems, the only Marxists in America are found in humanities faculties, and these people somehow cling to the sophomoric notion that what Eagleton calls the “hierarchical Christian order” and the free market economy are responsible for nearly all the suffering in the world. These academic Marxists are guilty of complicity with a materialist political philosophy that is inherently evil (in that, in denying the sacred, it denies the sacredness of each human being) and has proven so in one bloodbath after another during the past century.
A decade after Eagleton’s book, John Xiros Cooper published another Marxist work on The Waste Land and included here is his section on the episode in the poem in which a clerk seduces a typist. Cooper reduces the incident to an attack by Eliot on the lower classes. Sometimes one wishes that literary critics would be required to produce control groups the way scientists have to. Where, we could ask Cooper, is the glowing portrait of the upper-class or middle-class couple in the poem? Perhaps Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, with their hopeless, unfulfilled, sterile love? Perhaps the middle-class couple in the apartment in Part II (“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.”)? The fact is that Eliot’s early verse is largely satiric, and rather brutally so. He paints unsavory portraits of all classes, both sexes, Christians and Jews, and every ethnic group he knows—including his own (see, for example, “Cousin Nancy”). Cooper’s reductive interpretation is thoroughly irresponsible.
The title of Michael North’s “The Dialect in/of Modernism: Pound and Eliot’s Racial Masquerade” is not promising, but this seems to me an excellent essay. Its purpose is not to make a facile charge of racism against Pound and Eliot but rather to examine carefully and subtly the poets’ use of the Uncle Remus dialect in their letters and elsewhere. North finds here “deeply mixed feelings about race,” for these two American writers, trying to establish themselves in Europe, speak an outsider’s dialect and thus identify with the black dialect.
The final section of the book comprises three feminist essays. Sandra Gilbert’s “Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature” was published twenty years ago and has the insouciance of the Ur-feminism of that era. It is, to Gilbert, “quite clear” that, in Part III of The Waste Land, “Eliot’s vision of Tiresias’ anomalous sexuality” arises from “anxiety about a blurring of . . . gender distinctions.” The typist and clerk incident is categorized as a rape (though the clerk’s caresses are “unreproved, if undesired”), a move in the direction of the feminists who define all heterosexual relations as rape. Christine Froula finds in the same poem evidence of Eliot’s desire “not to have but to be a woman.” Jaqueline Rose claims that Eliot’s criticism of Hamlet is really a criticism of Hamlet’s mother and results from the attempts of the male super-ego to repress the creative element in both women and language. The good thing about this type of criticism is that one can have it all ways at once: in these essays, and in others of the same stamp, Eliot has been described as wanting to be a woman and to repress women, wanting to be androgynous and repress androgyny, homosexual and homophobic, and any other psychosexual permutations one can imagine.
One problem with all these theories is that they do have the capacity to influence undergraduate students. Consider a paper written by an English major (let us call her Camilla) who had taken the literary theory course offered by the colleague mentioned earlier and then took my seminar in Renaissance literature. The paper is entitled “Prospero’s Island: A Feminist Criticism,” and its thesis is that “The Tempest expresses the patriarchal ideology centering around male dominance and female submission.” The first supporting example is Prospero’s description to Miranda of their being set adrift by those who had usurped his dukedom: “The ministers for th’purpose hurried thence / Me and thy crying self.” Camilla comments, “Here Prospero is portrayed as the caring father and protector, saving his defenseless (crying) daughter from the evil men in his dukedom.” (Theoretically, a feminist playwright would not have had the baby cry at this point.) Actually, Miranda herself proposes Camilla’s view: “Alack, what trouble / Was I then to you!”
But Prospero rejects the interpretation and reverses their roles: “O, a cherubim / Thou wast that did preserve me!” What is more, he does not claim to have done anything at all to save her, saying rather that they came to shore “By providence divine.” Camilla mentions none of these complications. She proceeds to show that “Miranda portrays the stereotypical female in a patriarchal story . . . submissive to the males in her life.” As an instance, she notes the way Miranda offers to carry Ferdinand’s logs for him. Thus, without even having to ask, “Ferdinand is exerting his dominance over her.” Omitted is Ferdinand’s response to the offer: “No, precious creature: / I had rather crack my sinews, break my back, / Than you should such dishonor undergo / While I sit lazy by.” Ferdinand goes on to say that, “The very instant that I saw you, did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and for your sake / Am I this patient log-man.” Of course, a more sophisticated feminist critic would be able to argue that in offering to be her servant and slave Ferdinand is actually making Miranda subservient, but my point is just that the ideology drives to the same conclusion no matter what the evidence because it reduces all human experience to one factor—whether that be race, or class, or sex—and reduces all literature in the same way.
Camilla goes on to mention Prospero’s dominance over Ariel (assumed, based no doubt on Disney’s Little Mermaid, to be female) and then addresses Prospero’s stern treatment of Caliban after the latter tried to rape Miranda. Camilla acknowledges that Prospero acts from love of Miranda, but then analyzes his deeper motives: “If Prospero couldn’t protect Miranda from the evil that Caliban represents, then he has failed as the patriarchal father. He has failed to control, to dominate his subjects and his surroundings.” The first sentence is true enough and demonstrates that patriarchal systems do seek to protect women, but the second sentence puts the ideological twist on this: it is only his own desire for control and dominion that motivates Prospero. What the feminist reduction obliterates is love, the love between father and daughter, husband and wife. My fear is that this ideology will poison the capacity for love in students such as Camilla.
Like Marxism, feminism is not a harmless intellectual game. To a large degree, it also harbors a “guilty collusion”—one with the forces that threaten the institutions of marriage and family today, and that support the legalized killing of tens of millions of innocent children in their mothers’ wombs.
Eliot wrote of a “dissociation of sensibility,” a dissociation of thought and feeling (or sense experience). He identified it with the Cartesian split, the insistence of Descartes that spirit and matter are separated by an unbridgeable gulf. In the Clark Lectures, in 1926, Eliot spoke of this dissociation as “a difference which marks the real abyss between the classic scholastic philosophy and all philosophy since. It was impressed upon the world by Descartes . . . when he clearly stated that what we know is not the world of objects, but our own ideas of these objects.” This division between mind and matter, between subjective and objective experience, is reflected and magnified in postmodern literary theory, which is either radically relativistic or radically reductive—and often, unconsciously, both at the same time. Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophies, with their insistence on a union of matter and form, body and soul, offered an answer to Cartesian dualism which Eliot found compelling. In Four Quartets he speaks of the ultimate mysterious union of opposites: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” This solution to the modern philosophical dilemma is, however, impossible to accept for the secularist, who finds meaning either in the brute forces of the physical world or the arbitrary freeplay of the mind or the passing consensus of the human tribe. Looking for meaning in these places has not only led individuals to a sense of nihilism but has led whole nations to slaughter innocent people in numbers completely beyond the scale of anything known in the ages of faith. Given the choice between Man and God, those who choose Man paradoxically but inevitably end up building guillotines, gas chambers, re-education facilities, abortion clinics, and gulags.
Dr. Benjamin Lockerd is professor of English at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. He is Vice President of the T S. Eliot Society and author of Aethereal Rumours: T. S. Eliot’s Physics and Poetics.
Posted: February 26, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.